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A Strange Unity
By Larry Lehna
Located on the shores of Lake Superior, this old edifice was built in 1889. Had it served any other purpose than to hold the detritus of society, it would have been condemned and torn down years ago. They will never again build a prison on prime lakefront property, but at the time it was built, in the wilds of Northern Michigan, it seemed a safe and remote location to house criminals. Marquette is Michigan’s toughest prison. The name Marquette has even been turned into a verb and a noun in Michigan prison parlance. It means an exceptionally mean look on your face, as in “That motherfucker is Marquetting me.”
Everyone there hates everyone else. The blacks hate the whites, and vice versa. The Mexicans hate the blacks and whites and this hate is also returned in kind. The guards hate everybody and, quite understandably, are universally detested. The individuals inside of these factions also hate each other. You may find a few people to associate with, but you will find no friends in Marquette. Those that you associate with will steal from you in an instant, if they believe they can get away with it, or that you won’t retaliate. Fear and intimidation are the tools of this society. If you ever let on that you fear someone, your time there will be a far worse hell than the hell that the state provides.
So it was in this setting that my day began as usual. I sipped my insipid coffee and concentrated on my crossword puzzle. I tried to ignore the noise, while I waited for the doors to break for chow. There was very little variation in our breakfast menu. We had either oatmeal or grits. This was invariably complimented with milk, a juice and cold dry toast. After breakfast, I returned to my cell to await “yard.”
Yard is, perhaps, too grand a term for the area we were allowed for our exercise. At 100’ by 60’, it seemed much smaller when populated by 300 inmates. We had yard one block at a time. This woeful little plot was totally devoid of vegetation. An abandoned and deteriorating four-story garment factory and Six Block made up two sides. The other two sides were composed of a 20’ tall wall, made out of the same native sandstone as the rest of the prison. These walls were topped with the ubiquitous (in prison) walkways, razor wire, and gun towers. As a consequence, our view was limited to the sky or to other inmates. I went years without seeing a tree, or a blade of grass. This bleak tableau did nothing to foster any improvement in one’s attitude. It certainly didn’t help in my, so called, “rehabilitation.”
There was a dearth of recreational equipment. Two basketballs and hoops, one chin up bar, and a pile of weights was the entire inventory. As a result, you had to be ready to race to the yard the minute the doors broke. If you were quick, you could claim a piece of weight-lifting apparatus or a basketball. Of course, you had to be willing to fight to keep it. There were always challenges. You also had to make sure that you took your prize to the area occupied by your particular faction. You weren’t necessarily safe in your own area, but you were, at least, safer.
On that day, I was lifting weights with an acquaintance named Oz. Shortly before 10:00 a.m., another white prisoner, called “Cowboy,” (everyone has a nickname) stopped and announced importantly, that two planes had just crashed into the World Trade Center. As soon as Cowboy left, Oz opined, “He’s lying. I could believe one plane, but not two.” We continued with our workout. You don’t let many things alter your daily routine. There is a certain comfort in having a daily regimen. I guess it allows one to operate on autopilot. Before long you are scarcely aware of the passage of time. We exercised until 10:00 a.m. This would allow us time for a shower before count, at 10:30 a.m. (when we have to be in our cells and on our bunks).
When I walked into the cell-block, there was an eerie silence. I saw that the dayroom was packed with people. I went in and asked what was going on, only to be shushed. This was unheard of; you just did not disrespect someone by shushing them unless you were trying to provoke a fight. While I was formulating a suitable comeback, I became aware of the quiet, and the rapt expressions on the faces of those around me. I again looked at the guy who shushed me. There was no challenge in his eyes. He wasn’t even paying attention to me. This was very odd. You certainly didn’t lay down a challenge and then take your eyes off of your opponent. Not in Marquette Prison you didn’t. People have been maimed and killed for making that mistake.
I looked at the television and I was arrested by what I saw. As I tried to comprehend what I was looking at, the newsman’s voice finally penetrated the confusion I was feeling. The fact that I could hear the TV at all was unusual. Normally, the volume of the voices was actually painful to my ears. It was usually impossible to hear the TV, even though it was always at full volume. On this day, I could hear every word the announcer was saying. I saw the two burning towers and soon became aware that this was a terrorist attack. My God, they had killed two whole jetliners full of people and many others in the two buildings. Then the first building fell, almost in slow motion.
The silence became complete. No one said a word. As it got closer to count time and more people came in from the yard, the room got more crowded. We were packed together tighter than I had ever seen before. The occupancy limit for the room was 55. We had over 200 in there. People in Marquette demand their space, and you damn well better give it to them. Not that day. That day we were shoulder to shoulder. Gone were the posturing, the evil scowls and the flexing of bulging muscles. There was no black or white area in the dayroom that day. I saw that even the guards were shoehorned in with us. It is a crime to even touch a prison guard. Not that day. On That day we were all Americans, and we had just been attacked, dammit.
Finally a voice came over the loudspeaker, announcing five minutes until count. This is typically the time for the guards to start shouting at us to get into our cells. It is also the time for prisoners, safe in the anonymity of a pack, to yell insults at the guards. Neither of these happened that day. That day, the guard said, in a low voice, “Come on, guys. Let’s get this over with so we can get back in here.” He was easily heard. Without the usual grumbling and shouted profanities, we slowly and quietly filed out, to our cells. Many of us had our own black and white TVs (color was not allowed). We were eager for every small piece of information we could garner.
While we waited for lunch to be called, there was an unusual serenity about the whole cellblock. There was no blaring rap music. There was no sound of mindless inanities shouted back and forth. Even though the TVs were on different stations, the volumes were modulated. It was almost as if the place was populated by human beings. Occasionally you would hear someone relaying information to a neighbor who didn’t have a TV. This free exchange of information was certainly not the norm. What deviated even farther from the usual was that the information was passed in a normal speaking voice. The unnatural quiet was almost spooky.
When they finally called us to lunch, the movement was slow and orderly. People eagerly reported the latest findings and developments. There was quite a bit of conversation across faction lines. Some of these conversations lasted all the way to the chow hall door. Now even in this atmosphere, no one felt compelled to cross into a different lunch line. There were two lines. One was black and the other white. We separated at the door. Many of these conversations were resumed on the way back to the cellblock. Even the guards were happy to share any tidbits that they had learned. This tranquility lasted that whole day. There were no fights or assaults that day.
The effects lingered, but not for long. The dayroom never filled up like that again, nor will it ever. For a short time there was a sense of camaraderie that will never again be felt in that hellhole. It was for those few days that we all had something in common. We were Americans, and we were proud of it. America is a melting pot, and we were shown what it could be like, what it should be like. I knew it was too good to last. Within a few days we were back to business as usual, hate, fear, and intimidation.